Food for Thought

At first glance, the shenanigans going on in the House of Representatives over the farm bill would seem to be one more example that the Republican majority is the Gang Who Can't Shoot Straight -- one more milestone on John Boehner's quest to be named the Least Effective Speaker of the House Ever.

The debate has been particularly nasty and it sometimes borders on the incoherent. Some of it is pure hypocrisy, like when Tennessee Republican Stephen Fincher denounced the food stamp program as a way the government steals "other people's money" even while the deeply Christian Fincher was cashing an astonishing $3.48 million in farm subsidy checks between 1999-2012.

The most dramatic action the House took was to vote on a farm bill stripped entirely of any mention of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamps. Republican purists really don't like food stamps -- it offends them morally. Despite banking his subsidy money, the estimable Rep. Fincher quoted the Bible to denounce food stamps: "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat." Which I guess is one way the GOP hopes to appeal to voters thrown out of work in a lousy economy.

In this denialism that Americans who teeter on the brink of hunger have only themselves to blame, Rep. Fincher merely gave Biblical intonation to the views of Ronald Reagan. In 1986, when Reagan was asked to participate in the utterly anodyne "Hands Across America" event, designed to raise money for hunger and homelessness, the Gipper responded, "I don't believe that there is anyone going hungry in America by reason of denial or lack of ability to feed them; it is by people not knowing where or how to get this help." The White House PR folks smoothed that over quickly and Nancy and Ron held hands on the White House lawn.

But underneath all the angry blather the House has raised a few important issues, even if it has done so for all the wrong reasons. Uncoupling SNAP from the farm bill gives a momentary opportunity to look at both and ask some hard questions.

Republicans these days have a very hard time with cause and effect -- like when former Representative Steve Austria announced in 2009 that the New Deal was so bad for America that it caused the Great Depression. And so it is with SNAP: regardless of what some Republicans may believe, food stamps don't cause people to be lazy, keep them from working, or otherwise contribute to the deterioration of our moral fiber.

And they've been around for a very long time. In fact, they trace their origins back to the 1930s. During the Depression, mass unemployment resulted in significant numbers of Americans who could not afford to feed their families. Church-run relief projects and municipal "community chests" went bankrupt trying to provide soup and bread for the hungry. In 1939 the FDR administration began a food stamp program which ran until 1943. 20 million Americans in roughly half the counties in the nation used the program. That's right: a significant number of the Greatest Generation needed food stamps. Indeed, roughly one-third of the men drafted to fight World War II were rejected as physically unfit, many of those because of problems resulting from malnutrition.

Similarly, the farm bill currently floundering on Capitol Hill traces its origins to the agricultural policies initiated during the New Deal. Those programs were created in response to the collapse of the farm economy across much of rural American. John Steinbeck won a Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for a novel about farmers blown off their Oklahoma farm. Like the food stamp program, New Deal agricultural policy responded to a very real crisis and to the demands of Americans that something be done to save a failing system.

As many commentators have noted, food stamps and farm subsidies were packaged together legislatively in the early 1970s as a way of creating a political coalition between rural legislators who wanted farm subsidies and urban legislators for whom food stamps were important.

But there was more than politics in the timing of this legislative union. By the early '70s the initial gains in the War on Poverty had stalled, and the economic malaise known as "stagflation" was beginning to set in. Richard Nixon responded to this with farm policies designed to promote cheap food, and, along with a major expansion in the food stamp program, the policies were meant to mitigate voter anger as unemployment began to creep up and wages began to flatten.

By now we have evidence in abundance that these policies have worked, and with a vengeance. They have contributed to the industrialization and expansion of large-scale, corporate farming, and the resulting cheap food plays a central role in our obesity crisis. The skinny 1930s have been replaced by the rotund 2000s. According to one 2010 study, roughly 27 percent of enlistment-aged men are too fat to fight in the army.

Forty years after farm policy and food stamps were joined together, it doesn't exaggerate too much to say that they work at cross-purposes. On the one hand, farm policy has fattened a few financially while fattening the rest of us physically. On the other, Federal nutrition programs swim against the growing tide of cheap calories in an effort to make us a little healthier.

Clearly, the nation needs a farm bill, but just as clearly it needs to have different priorities than simply subsidizing corporate farms to produce cheap crops and factory-raised chickens. The nation still needs SNAP, along with a broader approach to dealing with nutrition and obesity.

Perhaps the House, however inadvertently, has given us a chance to re-think all these policies, and to move toward new policies that promote better farming and healthier people. This is surely not what the GOP zealots in the House intended, but that doesn't mean the rest of us can't seize the opportunity.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is "To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government" (Oxford University Press).